The Four Questions The U.S. Military Should Be Asking About Operation Swords of Iron
Operation Swords of Iron — the Israeli military response into Gaza, in the aftermath of the deadly, Hamas-led, Oct. 7th terrorist attacks — is likely still in its infancy. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Chief of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi have all separately predicted that this will be “long war” as the Israeli Defense Force attempts to dismantle Hamas’ networks inside the Gaza Strip.
For American military observers of this conflict, this war, much like previous Israeli wars, will likely yield a host of lessons. And while it is still too early to say precisely what those lessons are— much less to what degree, if any, the United States military will internalize them — it is not too early to identify the right questions to be asking as the conflict unfolds. And while there is an almost infinite number of areas one could explore, there are at least four big questions that the U.S. military should be asking itself as it watches this war in Gaza unfold.
What Are the Roots of Strategic Surprise?
As a starting point, perhaps the most fundamental question to be asking is how Hamas was able to pull off an attack of the scale seen on Oct. 7, 2023, seemingly without any Israel gaining advanced warning or much in the way of effective response. The fact that Hamas was able to gain such strategic surprise at all is shocking, given Israel’s many advantages: a state of the art, billion dollar border wall, equipped with a range of sensors; a host of (until now) well-regarded and sophisticated intelligence services; and the inherent advantage the comes from looking at the same small piece of ground, controlled by the same adversary for decades, right next door.
There have already been a number of attempts to answer what went wrong. Early explanations point to a series of operational and intelligence blunders—from failing to monitor some of Hamas communications, to clustering commanders in a handful of locations. For his part, Halevi has promised more than once that, when the war is over, “We will learn. We will investigate.” Shin Bet—Israeli domestic intelligence—head Ronin Bar has made a similar pledge.
And yet, this is not the first time Israel’s Defense Forces has been caught off guard. Fifty years ago, almost to the day, the 1973 Yom Kippur War found Egypt successfully breaching the Israeli line of defenses along the Suez Canal. Then, too, Israel was caught off guard, because it had rested on its laurels, in part due to its stunning success only six years earlier, during the 1967 Six Day War. In that war Israel had decisively defeated a much larger coalition of Arab states that were trying to eliminate the state of Israel by relying on tanks and airpower. In 1973, Israelis believed that their past success would carry on into the future. They were wrong.
One can only wonder whether Israel again suffered from a similar degree of hubris in the run up to the Oct. 7th attacks. After all, Israel had successfully contained and deterred Hamas in Gaza — mostly successfully — for the better part of two decades. Regardless of what Israeli intelligence did or did not intercept, or where Israel’s Defense Forces positioned its commanders on that day, the inability of both the intelligence services and military to imagine and anticipate such an attack could apply to the United States, as well.
Can Low Tech Means Effectively Counter a High-Tech Force?
Israel’s Defense Forces has long relied on leveraging its technological superiority to guarantee its military advantage. As the military arm of a “start-up nation,” the armed forces has been at the forefront of a series of military technological innovations — from active defenses for armored vehicles to its vaunted Iron Dome missile defense shield. The Gaza wall was meant to also be a demonstration of such innovations: A 20 foot high steel wall, reinforced with a concrete barrier dug below the earth, laden with an exquisite system of sensors, which are connected to large caliber machine guns that can fire automatically. The wall appeared to be a marvel of war technology.
In a brutal twist of fate, however, on Oct. 7th Hamas became the David to Israel’s Goliath. Where the Israelis had deployed sophisticated ground sensors linked by cellular towers that were tied to remote controlled machine guns and command posts, Hamas took down key cellular nodes with small drones carrying small munitions. Where Israeli had constructed a high, steel wall, Hamas breached it with basic explosives and bull dozers. Even Hamas’ paraglider attack is not sophisticated or new: other Palestinian militant groups employed a similar tactic, albeit on a smaller scale, some 35 years ago.
The next phase of this war will pit similarly high tech solutions against low tech problems. One of the key operational challenges the Israeli military faces — should it try to clear Gaza on the ground — is the Gaza Metro: a reportedly 500 kilometer labyrinth of tunnels underneath the strip. But, as much popular attention as the tunnels have received over the last few weeks, its worth remembering that tunnel warfare dates back to ancient times. The Israeli Defense Force, for its part, has been seized with developing solutions to the tunnel problem ever since the last major Gaza ground war, Operation Protective Edge. The military has developed a series of better detection mechanisms to locate the tunnels, as well as the use of robotics to survey them.
Ultimately, Operation Swords of Iron will test the “bang for the buck” a modern army receives from such high-end solutions, and to what extent they can be countered using cheaper, simpler technologies. These lessons will apply to the Israeli Defense Force, of course, but will also be relevant for the United States — another military that is similarly premised on the idea of technological silver bullets.
Have Militaries Gotten Any Better at Urban Warfare?
The challenge of how to fight in dense urban centers — without leveling them — has preoccupied military planners for decades. So far, the recent historical record here is dismal. In battles like Grozny, Fallujah, Sadr City, or Mosul, when armies met a determined adversary in an urban setting, the result has been, more often than not, sheer destruction. No wonder the U.S. Army was transfixed with the problem of fighting in megacities — densely populated urban centers of ten million people or more — for years.
With its two million plus inhabitants crammed into an area roughly the size of Philadelphia, Gaza will be a test case for how far militaries have come in solving this challenge. Over the years, Israel’s Defense Force has tried a variety of operational techniques. Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-2009, featured a relatively quick but deep push into Gaza. By contrast, Operation Protective Edge, in 2014, featured ground fighting along the periphery, as Israel sought to neutralize Hamas’ cross-border tunnel network. Still other Israeli attempts to control the Strip focused on airpower-only operations, like Pillar of Defense, in 2012.
Given Israel’s stated objectives of destroying Hamas and rescuing the 200 or more hostages held by Hamas or other groups, the Israeli military will likely have to mount a significantly more intense operation than it has in past. Already, Israel has claimed to have struck more than 4,900 targets inside Gaza points to both the more ambitious goals and the more aggressive military campaign this time around. Unfortunately, with estimates of thousands killed, tens of thousands wounded, and hundreds of thousands displaced in Gaza, the early evidence also suggests that the military problem of how to fight in urban centers—without mass destruction—remains very much unsolved operational problem.
This war will likely only become more kinetic and, unfortunately, bloodier. If the Israeli military truly wants to clear Hamas’ vast tunnel system, Israelis will have to put significant amounts of ground combat power — tanks, mechanized infantry, artillery, mortars, engineers — on the ground, in order to go into buildings and underground. And while Israel has taken some measures to minimize civilian casualties, ultimately it’s going to be a test of whether Israel’s Defense Force—or any advanced military — can fight an urban war, achieve its strategic objective, and still leave the city intact, and its civilian population unharmed.
Is The U.S. Any Better at Thinking through Post-Combat Planning?
If there was one common refrain out of most every post-war analysis of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was a critique of the plan for what happens after the initial shooting phase ends. Ironically enough, this is one area where Israel should learn from the United States’ experience, as much as vice versa. While Israeli leadership from current prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down are unified in their desire to eliminate Hamas as a military entity, and prevent Hamas from returning to what it was, they thus far have yet to offer a plan on what comes next.
There are no easy answers here. Occupying Gaza risks saddling Israel with millions of hostile inhabitants and the daunting task of rebuilding what will in all likelihood be a shattered society. Withdrawing prematurely risks creating a power vacuum and leaving a cesspool of misery that will, in time, either beckon the return of Hamas or breed an equally malign actor. That’s a thorny strategic problem, and one to which Israel’s Defense Force, like many militaries, would prefer leaving to someone else to tackle.
But ultimately, the question of what comes after the shooting stops is not a question the Israeli military — or any military —can shirk, because it is fundamental to judging whether the war itself was a success or a failure. And so, rather than pass the buck, militaries need to plan for what comes next from the get-go, so that they can handle the transition as successfully as possible. Whether Israel’s Defense Force has internalized this notion of planning for what’s next, or be able to execute any better than the U.S. military did Iraq or Afghanistan, remains a very open question. One way or another, though, U.S. military planners will be looking at Operation Swords of Iron either as a case study in what a military did right, or yet another example of military short-sightedness.
Israel’s Wars as a Warfighting Laboratory
Even though Swords of Iron is likely still in its infancy, this war is shaping up to be a watershed moment for the Middle East, and for the United States’ role in the region. Depending on how the war turns out, it could have far-reaching consequences for Israeli-American relationship, U.S. attempts to broker Israeli-Arab peace, and U.S. attempts to deter Iranian aggression. The war will also yield a wealth of insights about the nature of modern combat that will occupy military analysts for years to come.
Ultimately, it’s too soon to tell what the answers to any of these four big questions will be, but one thing is certain: there will be lessons from this conflict for the U.S. military. The early evidence suggests that some of the same issues that the U.S. wrestled with for the last two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan — guarding against strategic surprise, countering low-tech challenges advance military capability, fighting in urban areas and planning for post-combat issues — remain unsolved at least in the Israeli context. This, in turn, should prompt a degree of self-reflection for the United States as well. As the U.S. military watches the next days, weeks and potentially months unfold in Israel, U.S. planners should ask themselves: would we able to do any better? If not, then U.S. still has more learning to do.
Fifty years ago, the 1973 Yom Kippur War prompted the U.S. military to rethink its approach to modern warfare and the iconic doctrine of AirLand Battle. This conflict, too, may offer similarly profound insights. Whether the U.S. military chooses to learn these lessons, though, is another question for which we cannot yet know the answer.
Raphael S. Cohen is director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program at RAND Project AIR FORCE. Gian Gentile is deputy director of the RAND Army Research Division.
Image: Israeli Defense Force